Last updated: September 19, 2017

Lung cancer is the most lethal type of cancer, accounting for 1 in 4 cancer deaths in both men and women. In 2017, lung cancer is expected to claim more than 155,000 lives in the United States. To slow the epidemic, a new campaign from the American Lung Association highlights the lifesaving potential of lung cancer screenings.

So is a lung cancer screening right for you? Here’s what you need to know.

Saved by the Scan: Could a Lung Cancer Screen Save Your Life?

The campaign, called “Saved By the Scan,” was launched in partnership with the Ad Council. It targets former smokers who may not know that they are at high risk for developing lung cancer.

Lung cancer screens can detect cancer before it metastasizes to other areas of the body. Most lung cancer patients aren’t diagnosed until the cancer has already metastasized. This is a major factor in lung cancer deaths since lung cancer is more easily treated when it’s only in the lungs.

“Lung cancer mortality can be reduced if lung cancer is detected early by low-dose CT screening among high-risk populations,” said Andrea McKee, M.D., Chairman of Radiation Oncology at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and scientific advisor for ALA's Lung Force. “If only half of those 9 million Americans at high risk were screened, about 15,000 lives would be saved.”

According to the American Lung Association, 9 million people in the United States are at a high risk of developing lung cancer. People considered high risk are those who smoked for more than 30 “pack years,” where each pack per day counts as a “pack day.” So two packs per day for 15 years would count as more than 30 years. People who fit into this category should talk to their doctors about a lung cancer screening if:

  • They still smoke or quit within the last 15 years.

  • They are over the age of 55.

The Association provides a simple screening tool to assess eligibility for a lung cancer screening. People on Medicare who meet other inclusion criteria do not have to pay for the screening.

Lung Cancer Prevention

Avoiding smoking—or quitting now if you’re already a smoker—is the single most effective strategy for preventing lung cancer. Even people with a history of smoking, however, can lower their risk in other ways. And because about 20% of people who die of lung cancer do not smoke, everyone should take steps to lower their risk of lung cancer.

"The potential to detect early cancer can increase the chances for a cure, allowing for more surgeries to cure people who, in the past, might not have known they had lung cancer until the disease had advanced," said Shikha Jain M.D., an oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Strategies for preventing lung cancer include:

  • Testing radon levels in your home, since high radon is linked to cancer.

  • Avoiding occupational exposure to known carcinogens, particularly lead and asbestos. If your job increases your exposure to carcinogens, talk to a pulmonologist about strategies, such as wearing a mask, to lower your risk.

  • Avoiding secondhand smoke, especially in enclosed areas.

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables.

  • Remaining physically active. Exercising most days of the week can lower your risk of many cancers.

Lung cancer screening low-dose CT scans are extremely important for patients over 55 years of age with at least a 30 pack-year smoking history because they reduce the mortality rate from lung cancer by 20%," said Mark Onaitis, M.D., director of the lung cancer screening program at UC San Diego Health. "This is accomplished by finding lung cancers when they are early-stage and curable."

Signs of Lung Cancer

Many people who have lung cancer don’t have symptoms at first. And because some smokers often cough or sound congested anyway, they may miss the early warning signs. This is why regular check-ups are so important, and why all smokers should consider getting a lung cancer screening. The primary symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • Coughing, especially if a cough is chronic.

  • Coughing up blood, or mucous that is blood-tinged or has an unusual color.

  • Difficulties breathing, including shortness of breath or wheezing.

  • Unexplained fatigue.

  • Unexplained weight loss.

  • Appetite loss.

  • Infections that don’t go away or that keep coming back.

  • Swelling, lumps, or bumps on the face or neck.

  • Headaches, dizziness, and fainting.

  • Numbness or tingling.

  • Jaundice.

  • Bone pain.

Know that these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have lung cancer. Many other diseases, as well as innocuous causes such as exhaustion and minor muscle injuries, can cause symptoms like those of lung cancer. Don’t allow fear and panic to deter you from talking to your doctor about your symptoms. If it’s lung cancer, prompt detection and treatment could save your life. More than half of people whose lung cancer is diagnosed in its earliest stages survive.

What to Expect From a Lung Cancer Screening

The American Lung Association recommends a lung cancer screening that is not at all painful or dangerous. Called a low-dose CT scan, the screening works like an X-ray. The scan takes only a few minutes and doesn’t require needles or any invasive procedures.

Using an imaging machine (usually at a hospital), the scan checks for tiny nodules growing in the lungs. These nodules are typically too small to have caused any symptoms yet, so the scan offers much earlier detection than many other diagnostic tests.

A doctor then either does a biopsy or repeats the scan later. Lung nodules and growths are common, and not all are cancerous. So monitoring these growths over time can detect cancer early.